A decade ago, Esther Ciammachilli was piloting passengers down a makeshift canal running through Las Vegas’ kitschy Venetian hotel. In between belting out Italian classics like “‘O sole mio,” she riffed on her alter ego, Francesca the gondolier, striking up conversation with guests and listening to their stories.
Fast-forward to October 2020 and Ciammachilli has ditched the faux Italian accent and accepted a new position as host of NPR member station WAMU 88.5’s “Morning Edition.” Although her stage has changed, the goal of engaging people remains.
“Whether you’re asking very poignant questions or being casual and getting to know someone, it’s really just about connection,” she says of her role at NPR.
I caught up with the half-Italian, half-Samoan journalist to discuss reporting in the age of Covid, adding flair to her new role and, of course, the acting journey that led her to radio. It’s slightly disarming to put a face to the euphonious voice that has provided such reliable ambience in the region over the last few years. Before her current position, Ciammachilli was reporting and subbing in for hosts of “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” as needed.
“As a fill-in host, you have this substitute teacher mentality where you do everything how you’re supposed to do it,” she explains. “Now that I’m in a permanent role, I can start making little tweaks here and there.”
Before WAMU, she spent time at NPR stations WBHM 90.3 in Birmingham and KUNR in Reno. Besides adding a personal touch to the drive time show, Ciammachilli hopes to make time for in-depth reporting outside of being on air, a goal that’s shared by the greater WAMU team.
“Going forward, what you’ll see and hear more of is hosts taking an active role in helping shape content and bring their own original stories to the airwaves,” she says.
Where would she start? A deep dive into the nation’s anti-democratic groups driving polarity.
It doesn’t take long to notice Ciammachilli’s positivity and team-driven approach. When asked how she’s managed reporting in such a tumultuous year, she quickly skims over her own experience to give ultimate credit and thanks to colleagues who have been boots on the ground throughout it all.
“I can’t imagine what our coverage would have been like without them,” she says of her fellow journalists. “I am blessed to work with a lot of talented, hardworking people who make me better on a regular basis.”
At home in Hyattsville, Maryland, Ciammachilli lives with her wife and partner of 15 years, Jennifer, a trio of pets (pup Delilah and cats Dear Prudence and A Boy Named Sue), and her in-laws. The couple has laid very low since March as Ciammachilli has asthma and Jennifer’s parents fall in the high-risk category. In non-Covid times, the couple reveled in dining at local restaurants and hiking as much as possible.
Early on in the pandemic, stay-at-home orders forced Ciammachilli to set up a remote studio in her basement. The unique circumstances spurred the actress-turned-journalist to do what she does best and make the most out of an odd situation. She delighted social media followers with mini-tours of the “random crap” in her temporary office – the toolshed.
These funny little bits, featuring pencil sharpeners and citrus juicers, were especially entertaining to listeners who’ve likely had similar cabin fever-esque exploits. Though Ciammachilli has since upgraded her studio to a light-filled room on the second floor of her home, she admits to missing broadcasts from the “Dexter kill room,” as she endearingly calls it.
The real-world experience that predated Ciammachilli’s journalism track seems to have given her the hard-to-teach humanism required by the profession – a precise balance of empathy, sheer curiosity and humor when needed. Those traits are what led her to report on a story about a co-ed wrestling league in the area, which won her a regional Edward R. Murrow Award last year.
As our conversation wraps, Ciammachilli sums up the impact acting has had on her career. In another Vegas gig, she played a range of characters in the improv show “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” From caterer to bridesmaid, the experience required her to be spry and versatile – dynamism she has since carried to her broadcasts. Radio definitely has a “performance aspect to it,” she says.
“The only difference is everything I say now is coming from me.”
Follow Ciammachilli on Twitter @EstherCinDC and listen to her host “Morning Edition” on WAMU 88.5, Monday through Friday. Go to www.wamu.org to livestream NPR’s radio shows and to donate to public service radio.
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